Bruce Sterling. The Spearhead of Cognition
CATSCAN 2 "The Spearhead of Cognition"
You're a kid from some podunk burg in Alabama.
From childhood you've been gnawed by vague
numinous sensations and a moody sense of your own
potential, but you've never pinned it down.
Then one joyful day you discover the work of a
couple of writers. They're pretty well-known (for
foreigners), so their books are available even in your
little town. Their names are "Tolstoy" and
"Dostoevsky." Reading them, you realize: This is it!
It's the sign you've been waiting for! This is your
destiny-- to become a *Russian Novelist*!
Fired with inspiration, you study the pair of
'em up and down, till you figure you've got a solid
grasp of what they're up to. You hear they're pretty
well-known back in Russia, but to your confident eye
they don't seem like so much. (Luckily, thanks to some
stunt of genetics, you happen to be a genius.) For
you, following their outline seems simple enough--in a
more sophisticated vein, of course, and for a modern
audience. So you write a few such books, you publish
'em, and people adore them. The folks in 'Bama are fit
to bust with pride, and say you've got Tolstoy beat
Then, after years of steadily growing success,
strange mail arrives. It's from Russia! They've been
reading your stuff in translation, and you've been
chosen to join the Soviet Writers' Union! Swell! you
think. Of course, living in backwoods Alabama, it's
been a little tough finding editions of contemporary
Russian novelists. But heck, Tolstoy did his writing
years ago! By now those Russians must be writing like
Then a shipment of modern Russian novels
arrives, a scattering of various stuff that has
managed to elude the redtape. You open 'em up and--
ohmiGod! It's . . . it's COMMUNISM! All this stupid
stereotyped garbage! About Red heroes ten feet tall,
and sturdy peasants cheering about their tractors, and
mothers giving sons to the Fatherland, and fathers
giving sons to the Motherland
. . . Swallowing bile,
you pore through a few more at random--oh God, it's
Then the _Literary Gazette_ calls from Moscow,
and asks if you'd like to make a few comments about
the work of your new comrades. "Why sure!" you drawl
helpfully. "It's clear as beer-piss that y'all have
gotten onto the wrong track entirely! This isn't
literature--this is just a lot of repetitive agitprop
crap, dictated by your stupid oppressive publishers!
If Tolstoy was alive today, he'd kick your numb
Marxist butts! All this lame bullshit about commie
heroes storming Berlin and workers breaking production
records--those are stupid power-fantasies that
wouldn't fool a ten-year-old! You wanna know the true
modern potential of Russian novels? Read some of my
stuff, if you can do it without your lips moving! Then
call me back."
And sure enough, they do call you back. But
gosh--some of the hardliners in the Writers' Union
have gone and drummed you out of the regiment. Called
you all kinds of names . . . said you're stuck-up, a
tool of capitalism, a no-talent running-dog egghead.
After that, you go right on writing, even criticism,
sometimes. Of course, after that you start to get
This really happened.
Except that it wasn't Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. It
was H.G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon. It wasn't Russian
novels, it was science fiction, and the Writers' Union
was really the SFWA. And Alabama was Poland.
And you were Stanislaw Lem.
Lem was surgically excised from the bosom of
American SF back in 1976. Since then plenty of other
writers have quit SFWA, but those flung out for the
crime of being a commie rat-bastard have remained
remarkably few. Lem, of course, has continued to
garner widespread acclaim, much of it from hifalutin'
mainstream critics who would not be caught dead in a
bookstore's skiffy section. Recently a collection of
Lem's critical essays, _Macroworlds_, has appeared in
paperback. For those of us not privy to the squabble
these essays caused in the '70s, it makes some eye-
Lem compares himself to Crusoe, stating
(accurately) that he had to erect his entire structure
of "science fiction" essentially from scratch. He did
have the ancient shipwrecked hulls of Wells and
Stapledon at hand, but he raided them for tools years
ago. (We owe the collected essays to the beachcombing
of his Man Friday, Austrian critic Franz
These essays are the work of a lonely man. We
can judge the fervor of Lem's attempt to reach out by
a piece like "On the Structural Analysis of Science
Fiction:" a Pole, writing in German, to an Austrian,
about French semantic theory. The mind reels. After
this superhuman effort to communicate, you'd think the
folks would cut Lem some slack--from pure human pity,
if nothing else.
But Lem's ideology--both political and literary-
-is simply too threatening. The stuff Lem calls
science fiction looks a bit like American SF--about
the way a dolphin looks like a mosasaur. A certain
amount of competitive gnawing and thrashing was
inevitable. The water roiled ten years ago, and the
judgement of evolution is still out. The smart money
might be on Lem. The smarter money yet, on some
judicious hybridization. In any case we would do well
to try to understand him.
Lem shows little interest in "fiction" per se.
He's interested in science: the structure of the
world. A brief autobiographical piece, "Reflections on
My Life," makes it clear that Lem has been this way
from the beginning. The sparkplug of his literary
career was not fiction, but his father's medical
texts: to little Stanislaw, a magic world of skeletons
and severed brains and colorful pickled guts. Lem's
earliest "writings," in high school, were not
"stories," but an elaborate series of imaginary forged
documents: "certificates, passports, diplomas . . .
coded proofs and cryptograms . . ."
For Lem, science fiction is a documented form of
thought-experiment: a spearhead of cognition.
All else is secondary, and it is this singleness
of aim that gives his wo
rk its driving power. This is
truly "a literature of ideas," dismissing the heart as
trivial, but piercing the skull like an ice-pick.
Given his predilections, Lem would probably
never have written "people stories." But his rationale
for avoiding this is astounding. The mass slaughters
during the Nazi occupation of Poland, Lem says, drove
him to the literary depiction of humanity as a
species. "Those days have pulverized and exploded all
narrative conventions that had previously been used in
literature. The unfathomable futility of human life
under the sway of mass murder cannot be conveyed by
literary techniques in which individuals or small
groups of persons form the core of the narrative."
A horrifying statement, and one that people in
happier countries would do well to ponder. The
implications of this literary conviction are, of
course, extreme. Lem's work is marked by unflinching
extremities. He fights through ideas with all the
convulsive drive of a drowning man fighting for air.
Story structure, plot, human values, characterization,
dramatic tension, all are ruthlessly trudgeon-kicked
In criticism, however, Lem has his breath, and
can examine the trampled flotsam with a cynical eye.
American SF, he says, is hopelessly compromised,
because its narrative structure is trash: detective
stories, pulp thrillers, fairy-tales, bastardized
myths. Such outworn and kitschy devices are totally
unsuited to the majestic scale of science fiction's
natural thematics, and reduce it to the cheap tricks
of a vaudeville conjurer.
Lem holds this in contempt, for he is not a man
to find entertainment in sideshow magic. Stanislaw Lem
is not a good-time guy. Oddly, for a science fiction
writer, he seems to have very little interest in the
intrinsically weird. He shows no natural appetite for
the arcane, the offbeat, the outre.. He is colorblind
to fantasy. This leads him to dismiss much of the work
of Borges, for example. Lem claims that "Borges' best
stories are constructed as tight
ly as mathematical
proofs." This is a tautology of taste, for, to Lem,
mathematical proofs are the conditions to which the
"best" stories must necessarily aspire.
In a footnote to the Borges essay Lem makes the
odd claim that "As soon as nobody assents to it, a
philosophy becomes automatically fantastic
literature." Lem's literature *is* philosophy; to veer
from the path of reason for the sake of mere sensation
American SF, therefore, is a tissue of frauds,
and its practicioners fools at best, but mostly snake-
oil salesmen. Lem's stern puritanism, however, leaves
him at sea when it comes to the work of Philip K.
Dick: "A Visionary Among the Charlatans." Lem's mind
was clearly blown by reading Dick, and he struggles to
find some underlying weltanschauung that would reduce
Dick's ontological raving to a coherent floor-plan.
It's a doomed effort, full of condescension and
confusion, like a ballet-master analyzing James Brown.
Fiction is written to charm, to entertain, to
enlighten, to convey cultural values, to analyze life
and manners and morals and the nature of the human
heart. The stuff Stanislaw Lem writes, however, is
created to burn mental holes with pitiless coherent
light. How can one do this and still produce a product
resembling "literature?" Lem tried novels. Novels,
alas, look odd without genuine characters in them.
Then he hit on it: a stroke of genius.
The collections _A Perfect Vacuum_ and
_Imaginary Magnitudes_ are Lem's masterworks. The
first contains book reviews, the second, introductions
to various learned tomes. The "books" discussed or
reviewed do not actually exist, and have archly
humorous titles, like "Necrobes" by "Cezary
Strzybisz." But here Lem has found literary
structures--not "stories"--but assemblages of prose,
familiar and comfortable to the reader.
Of course, it takes a certain aridity of taste
to read a book composed of "introductions,"
traditionally a kind of flaky appetizer before the
main course. But it's worth it for the
of freedom, his manifest delight in finally ridding
himself of that thorny fictive thicket that stands
between him and his Grail. These are charming pieces,
witty, ingenious, highly thought-provoking, utterly
devoid of human interest. People will be reading these
for decades to come. Not because they work as fiction,
but because their form follows function with the
sinister elegance of an automatic rifle.
Here Lem has finessed an irrevocable choice. It
is a choice every science fiction writer faces. Is
the writer to write Real Novels which "only happen to
be" science fiction--or create knobby and irreducible
SF artifacts which are not true "stories," but
visionary texts? The argument in favor of the first
course is that Real Readers, i.e. mainstream ones,
refuse to notice the nakedly science-fictional. How
Lem must chuckle as he collects his lavish blurbs from
_Time_ and _Newsweek_ (not to mention an income
ranking as one of poor wretched Poland's best sources
of foreign exchange) . By disguising his work as the
haute-lit exudations of a critic, he has out-conjured
the Yankee conjurers, had his cake and eaten it
publicly, in the hallowed pages of the _NY Review of
It's a good trick, hard to pull off, requiring
ideas that burn so brilliantly that their glare is
overwhelming. That ability alone is worthy of a
certain writhing envy from the local Writers' Union.
But it's still a trick, and the central question is
still unresolved. What is "science fiction," anyway?
And what's it there for?
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